Saturday, October 22, 2016

How to Rig an Election: 2016 Secretary of State Race Ratings

Donald Trump's claims that the 2016 election will be rigged against him are not only damaging to democracy, but they're completely divorced from reality. Elections are run locally by hundreds of different election authorities totally unconnected at any federal level. At the absolute highest level, elections are overseen in most states by a secretary of state.

The problem for Trump is that Democrats hold just 20 secretary of state offices while Republicans hold 26—including those in important swing states like Iowa, Ohio, and Florida. If these officials wanted to rig the election, most of them would do so to favor the Donald!

But if voters are so concerned about voter fraud and disenfranchisement, they should be more interested in this obscure state office. To a certain extent, secretaries of state do have the power to put a figure on the scale in state elections: choosing early-voting times, cutting the state's voter rolls, and removing the option of straight-ticket voting. So if you did want to rig an election, secretary of state would be a very valuable office to control.

In 35 states, that means winning the job at the ballot box. Currently, 1.5 times as many Republicans have been elected secretary of state as Democrats (21–14). That has the chance to change pretty drastically with the eight secretaries of state up in 2016. Up to six of the offices could conceivably change hands, thanks mostly to a suboptimal distribution of the six Democrats and two Republicans currently in office: four of the Democratic ones serve in red states, and both of the Republican ones are in blue states. This election seems likely to bring a recalibration, with possible Republican pickups in Missouri and Montana and potential Democratic pickups in Washington and New Mexico. And keep your eye on West Virginia, where I think an upset could be brewing.

Below are my race ratings for secretary of state; more in-depth explainers can be found after the jump. To check out all the downballot race ratings I've released so far, click on the 2016 Ratings tab.

  • Missouri: Leans Republican. With Democratic Secretary of State Jason Kander running for U.S. Senate, this is a seat Democrats are at risk of losing. Although both candidates are political rookies, they both have ample name recognition, but one only has it in part of the state: Democrat Robin Smith was a local news anchor in St. Louis for 40 years, and Republican Jay Ashcroft is the son of the former Missouri senator and U.S. attorney general. The two are roughly even in cash on hand, but Ashcroft's family name plus the overall lean of the state are so far pushing him over the edge. Ashcroft has led both times that the Missouri Times weekly tracking poll has polled the race. Of note: Smith, who is black, would be the first minority candidate ever to win an election in Missouri.
  • Montana: Tossup. Incumbent Linda McCulloch is term-limited, but she's still trying her hardest to see Democrats hold onto her seat. Last week, she released the voting history of her would-be successors to claim—possibly incorrectly, it's not clear—that Republican Corey Stapleton had failed to vote in nine elections in the last nine years. It's just the latest to-do in a spirited campaign that has seen more general-election broadcast TV ads by each side than any other secretary of state's race. The Democratic candidate, State Auditor Monica Lindeen, has proven she knows how to win statewide, but both sides are treating it as a competitive race, and we just don't have any other data to go off.
  • New Mexico: Likely Democratic. This wasn't supposed to happen. In 2014, Republican Secretary of State Dianna Duran won a second term, 51.6% to 48.4%, over 38-year-old Democrat Maggie Toulouse Oliver—the most closely watched secretary of state race in the country. Duran's joy was short-lived; in 2015, she was charged with illegally transferring campaign funds into a personal bank account in order to fuel her gambling addiction. Her subsequent resignation triggered a special election for 2016, giving Toulouse Oliver a second chance in the much more favorable presidential electorate. She faces Republican Nora Espinoza in very much a rehashing of the 2014 race (Espinoza is even using Duran's campaign manager). Duran was one of Democrats' least favorite secretaries of state, an activist crusader against liberal voting laws like straight-ticket voting (which she eliminated and Toulouse Oliver has vowed to bring back), so this is perhaps the downballot seat Democrats most want to pick up. Luckily for them, Toulouse Oliver isn't blowing the Trump Tower–sized opportunity she's been handed; she's outraised and outspent Espinoza and has led in every poll of the race by at least seven points, including by a whopping 54–34% in the most recent one.
  • North Carolina: Solid Democratic. North Carolina is one of the few states where the secretary of state isn't in charge of elections, frankly making it a tad less interesting than the others on this list. Also making it less interesting: incumbent Democrat Elaine Marshall, who has held an iron grip on the office for five terms. Marshall has coasted to reelection even in years when most North Carolinians were voting Republican (such as 2004, when she won 57.3% to 42.7%). Despite the state's uber-competitiveness this year, Republican Michael LaPaglia hasn't been able to make much of a race out of this; neither side has aired a TV ad, for instance. Tellingly, Raleigh-based Public Policy Polling hasn't even asked about the race in its North Carolina polls, despite surveying many of the state's other constitutional offices.
  • Oregon: Leans Democratic. Republican Dennis Richardson lost a close 2014 election for Oregon governor, but he may have been playing the long game. This year, he's less ambitiously set his sights on the open secretary of state's office, and it's become the state's closest partisan race. On the Democratic side, Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian is running for a long-sought promotion (he also ran for Congress in 2011) but is relatively underfunded at $168,000 cash on hand. The two most recent polls actually both show Richardson ahead, but with massive numbers of undecideds who are disproportionately Democratic. The state's and year's overall political climate should pull Avakian through, but there's a chance Richardson becomes the first Republican since 2002 to win statewide in Oregon.
  • Vermont: Solid Democratic. Just as he did in 2012 and 2014, Democratic Secretary of State Jim Condos will cruise to reelection with no Republican opposition. The only other candidate is Liberty Union Party candidate Mary Alice Herbert, who—fun fact!—ran for vice president under the banner of the Socialist Party in 2004. How the mighty have fallen.
  • Washington: Tossup. Amazingly for such a blue state, Republicans have held the secretary of state's job in Washington since 1965. Republican Kim Wyman almost broke the streak when she first won by just 0.8 points in 2012, and she's in the fight of her political life here in 2016 against Democrat Tina Podlodowski. In the all-party primary in August—historically a good predictor of the general election in Washington—Wyman led Podlodowski just 47.9% to 46.1% in a race with no other Democrats or Republicans. Podlodowski has gone negative on Wyman for supporting voter ID and not canceling the state's non-binding presidential primary. Notably, the race has also attracted the attention of outside groups: the Republican State Leadership Committee has spent over $67,000, while Planned Parenthood has chipped in almost $2,000.
  • West Virginia: Tossup. Natalie Tennant was an ambitious rising star in West Virginia Democratic politics—until she flopped badly in the 2014 Senate race with just 34.5% of the vote. The question this year, as Tennant seeks reelection as secretary of state, is whether she permanently damaged her brand by allowing it to be associated with national Democrats—the ultimate kiss of death in idiosyncratic West Virginia. There are no polls to even give us a frame of reference on this race, but Tennant doesn't seem too concerned—her campaign only spent $18,738 total through September, most of which was on the primary. A full list of Tennant's expenditures since July 1: $1,800 to NGP VAN (a voter file provider), $832 on palm cards, and $133 in credit-card processing fees. In other words, not even Tennant knows if she's in any danger, since she hasn't done any internal polling. Meanwhile, Republican Mac Warner has invested $83,703 and still had $90,710 to spend as of the beginning of the month. Like West Virginia as a whole did in 2014, I think this one could sneak up on Democrats. If so, it's completely irresponsible of Democrats to be so complacent about control of an entire state's election administration—particularly a state about to implement a groundbreaking automatic voter-registration and voter-ID law.

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